Laura Wandel’s film, which is shortlisted for Best International Feature, shows the everyday violence of childhood.
Through the eyes of a child, schoolyard bullies are fickle creatures, able both to destroy you or to protect you from harm. This is the central predicament for Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a young elementary schooler who finds her social status upended when her older brother, Abel (Günter Duret), goes from tormentor to tormented in Laura Wandel’s Playground (Un monde, literally A world). The film, which is Belgium’s entry for Best International Feature at the Oscars, sticks closely to Nora’s perspective in its tight 72 minutes, often blurring the faces of the other children and adults to see the world through Nora’s tunnel vision. She begins the schoolyear with the objective of remaining close to Abel, crying at the prospect of spending the day separated from him and their father (Karim Leklou) and insisting that he include her in his recess antics. By the end, Nora wields the power in their fraught relationship, and can exercise that power with abandon.
The plot of Playground is simple and straightforward, but Wandel makes the stakes feel like life or death: Nora, timid and afraid of many everyday challenges, slowly begins to come out of her shell at school and make friends just as Abel’s social stock declines and he becomes the target of ringleader Antoine (Simon Caudry). Now known as the sister of the school pariah, Nora’s few friends take aim at Abel and the siblings find themselves at odds for perhaps the first time in their lives. Abel’s awkward transition to outcast gets Nora uninvited from birthday parties and recess games, and her resentment toward the brother she once worshipped only fuels Abel’s burgeoning depression.
Wandel shows the violence of bullying among different age groups in Playground, framing the action almost like a documentary through the eyes of Nora. Antoine doesn’t just mock and hit Abel on the blacktop, but nearly drowns him in a toilet, instilling so much fear in Abel that he later wets himself at lunch. Nora confides in their father despite a promise not to, but adult involvement only worsens the bullying, and she blames herself when Antoine leaves Abel locked in a dumpster all afternoon. “When you help people, things get worse,” Nora confesses to a teacher, demanding to know why she or another adult didn’t intervene in a clear display of schoolyard dominance. Throughout the film, the teachers cut through a barrage of petty arguments and fist fights, sometimes breaking up multiple altercations in one recess period and sometimes abandoning ship when the students prove too unruly. “It’s normal to fight at their age,” Madame Agnès (Laura Verlinden) says to soothe Nora, even after learning the extent of Abel’s torture. It’s a comment that rings shallow and hapless, but one that’s easy to imagine from a teacher either exhausted or clueless. Bullying is, after all, more commonplace than not, and the line between a regular bad day and one that leaves children irreparably harmed only thins with time.
The brilliance and terror of Wandel’s Cannes-winning film is the realization that these two realities — a bad day and one that scars a child for life — are linked for any number of the children passing through Nora and Abel’s school. Agnès admits that she does not always know what course of action to take when confronting the children, and as allegiances shift among bullied and bullies, a teacher’s intervention appears anything but simple. The line between the powerful and the powerless is thinner than the balance beam Nora is afraid to stand up on during gym class. Playground ends without resolution or even the catharsis of addressing its harrowing climax, one that sees Abel all too eager to redirect his frustration and shame at a new target. Though the abrupt ending is jolting, Wandel’s choice speaks to the cyclical nature of bullying that will undoubtedly replay at the school for weeks to come, the children’s social instincts as primal as the hunter and the hunted.